One of the most persistent problems of persuasion in the modern era has been the domination and subordination of racial “others,” yet race has received little attention from rhetoricians until relatively recently. Not until the second half of the twentieth century were sustained explorations of race and racism pursued by rhetorical scholars in either Speech or English departments. Since 1999, however, numerous studies that link rhetoric and race have emerged, not only in the fields of communication and composition, but also in a variety of other areas of social and symbolic action and significance. While it would be impossible to consider all of this research in the limited space of this article, an overview of those studies that link rhetoric and race reveals a powerfully interdisciplinary field of inquiry.
Early studies of race and rhetoric focused on literary and discourse analyses and tended to emphasize black communication. Over time, research on rhetoric and race expanded to address gender and sexuality, white power and privilege, and cultural studies. Rhetorical studies of race and racism offer important opportunities for examining the symbolic and social dimensions of identification and division, and, perhaps most importantly, the potential for discourse to promote social transformation and change. Rhetorical studies of race and racism pose provocative challenges to a society that has struggled throughout its history to overcome what W. E. B. Du Bois presciently coined “the problem of the color line,” the struggle for racial equality and social justice.
Rhetoric And Race In Black And White
Before the 1960s, few studies in either composition or communication addressed issues of race either directly or indirectly, with the exception of Kenneth Burke’s considerations of race in several of his early works (Crable 2003). Discussions of rhetoric and race were “an unlikely tandem” in composition studies (Campbell 1999), and in speech communication scholarship before the 1950s, much of the research that appeared in print focused mainly on “Negro” language practices. In the 1960s, both European and African-American scholars began to focus their research efforts on the relationship between rhetoric and race, and in doing so, they began to transform the ways in which language and social identity were understood and conceptualized.
During the 1960s, numerous essays and books appeared that examined and explicated rhetorics of black protest. By the 1970s, scholars began to question the efficacy of rhetoric for addressing racial issues, and theorized the need to reconceptualize and redefine rhetoric’s traditional preoccupation with persuasion and argumentation (Asante 1971). This redefinition called for an enlarged and enhanced understanding of discourse that addressed the social realities of racial difference and identity in the United States, and would be echoed later by other scholars, who hoped to establish less oppositional rhetorical theories and practices in the areas of gender, composition, and other realms of social and symbolic action.
The 1980s witnessed a continued expansion of research extending rhetoric and race beyond traditional critical analyses of African-American discourse and public address, and shifting to descriptive studies of the language of oppression as well as more theoretically complex explorations of the language of white racism (van Dijk 1987, 1993). This expansion continued into the 1990s, during which discourse studies and research influenced by symbolic and modern racism scholarship became much more prevalent. The focus on white identity and privilege continued to increase in the 1990s, as research began to attend to issues of power, ideology, and domination in areas such as critical legal studies, critical race studies, and media studies (Olmstead 1998). These studies signaled a shift toward enlarged conceptualization of rhetoric and race that would influence significantly the shape and trajectory of scholarship at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Beyond Binaries: Rethinking Rhetoric And Race
In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers began to take rhetoric and race in new critical and theoretical directions. In areas where little research had been conducted, such as diversity studies (Fernandez & Davis 1999) and composition (Gilyard 1999), relationships between race and rhetoric became central concerns. Studies in the social construction of equality (Condit & Lucaites 1993), commemorative discourse (Browne 1999), and civil rights rhetoric (Jensen & Hammerback 1994) revealed an expansion of traditional critical approaches, and rhetorical theorists increasingly recognized race as a collaboratively constructed rhetorical phenomenon (McPhail 1994; Gresson 1995). Scholars also began to offer theoretically driven examinations of the social and symbolic construction of whiteness and racial privilege (Nakayama & Martin 1999). The momentum established at the end of the twentieth century, which saw a rethinking of rhetoric informed by emerging ideological and epistemological concerns, invigorated thinking about rhetoric and race as the twenty-first century began.
Indeed, since 2000, intellectual currents in the study of rhetoric and race have both returned to their roots and also moved in powerful and provocative new directions. While studies of black nationalism and black identity have returned the discussion of race and rhetoric to the early emphasis on African-American discourse (Gordon 2003; Terrill 2004), emerging explorations of the rhetorics of whiteness and anti-racism have established fertile new grounds for addressing the problems and possibilities of racial reconciliation (Watts 2005). Race remains central to discussions of political rhetoric (Frank & McPhail 2005), and has emerged as well in studies of visual rhetoric (Gallagher & Zagacki 2005). Rhetorical scholars have expanded the conceptualization of race well beyond the boundaries of black and white identity, and connections between race, class, gender, and sexuality continue to enlarge the terrains upon which issues of discourse and identity can be explored.
Rethinking the relationship between rhetoric and race has returned researchers to one of the earliest questions raised by scholars: whether or not racial conflict and division are, in fact, problems that can be remedied by rhetoric. Two areas of inquiry in which this question has become a central consideration are studies of reparations and reconciliation. Research on reparations questions the potential of rhetoric to erase the color line (Bacon 2003), while scholarship on reconciliation continues to look to the promise of rhetoric to bring about significant social transformations in the area of race relations (Hatch 2006). John Hatch’s hopeful conclusions provide a salient representative anecdote for the future study of rhetoric and race: “The tragic reality of unequal and conflictual race relations might have to go from bad to worse before reconciliation’s call to atonement becomes compelling” (2006, 271). Hatch’s observation offers a guardedly optimistic assessment of the potential of rhetoric to reconcile what Ashley Montague (1964) over 40 years ago described as “man’s greatest myth: the fallacy of race.”
- Asante, M. (1971). Markings of an African concept of rhetoric. Today’s Speech, 19, 3–18.
- Bacon, J. (2003). Reading the reparations debate. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89, 171–195.
- Browne, S. (1999). Remembering Crispus Attucks: Race, rhetoric, and the politics of commemoration. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 85, 169–187.
- Campbell, K. (1999). Race and rhetoric: An unlikely tandem? In J. Swearingen & D. Pruett (eds.), Rhetoric, the polis, and the global village. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 11–14.
- Condit, C., & Lucaites, J. (1993). Crafting equality: America’s Anglo-African word. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Crable, B. (2003). Race and a rhetoric of motives: Kenneth Burke’s dialogue with Ralph Ellison. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 33, 5–25.
- Frank, D., & McPhail, M. (2005). Barack Obama’s address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention: Trauma, compromise, consilience, and the (im)possibility of racial reconciliation. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 8, 571–594.
- Fernandez, J., & Davis, J. (1999). Race, gender, and rhetoric: The true state of race and gender relations in corporate America. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Gallagher, V. (1999). Memory and reconciliation in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 2, 303–320.
- Gallagher, V., & Zagacki, K. S. (2005). Visibility and rhetoric: The power of visual images in Norman Rockwell’s depictions of civil rights. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91(2), 175–200.
- Gilyard, K. (ed.) (1999). Race, rhetoric, and composition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Gordon, D. (2003). Black identity: Rhetoric, ideology, and nineteenth-century black nationalism. Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press.
- Gresson, A. (1995). The recovery of race in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Hatch, J. (2006). The hope of reconciliation: Continuing the conversation. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 9, 259–278.
- Jensen, R., & Hammerback, J. (1994). Robert Parris Moses. In Leeman, R. (ed.), African American orators: A bio-critical sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- McPhail, M. (1994). The rhetoric of racism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- McPhail, M. (2002). The rhetoric of racism revisited: Reparations or separation? Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Montague, A. (1964). Man’s greatest myth: The fallacy of race. Cleveland, OH: World.
- Nakayama, T., & Martin, J. (eds.) (1999). Whiteness: The communication of social identity. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Olmstead, A. (1998). Words are acts: Critical race theory as a rhetorical construct. Howard Journal of Communications, 9, 323–331.
- Terrill, R. (2004). Malcolm X: Inventing radical judgment. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
- van Dijk, T. (1987). Communicating racism: Ethnic prejudice in thought and talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- van Dijk, T. (1993). Elite discourse and racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Watts, E. (2005). Border patrolling and passing in Eminem’s 8 Mile. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22, 187–206.